Tension: A Valuable Tool

Photo credit: garryknight on Flickr
As a writer, it’s your job to make life hard for your characters. Put simply, no one wants to read a story where everything is hunky dory and the characters cruise through life without a care in the world and life is so good it’s like Christmas every day.

In order for a story to be interesting, in order to keep your readers turning the pages, there needs to be constant conflict. On every page.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that someone needs to run in with a gun in every chapter or that you need constant high-action scenes—in fact, too much of the same thing, even something as exciting as gun fights and car chases will tire your reader out and, eventually, bore them.

So how do you keep your readers interested between those high-excitement scenes without exhausting them? The answer, my friends, is tension.

The definitions (via Google dictionary) for tension are actually pretty interesting, so I’m going to share them with you.


I especially like the first, third and last definition, but looking over them I think you can get a pretty good idea as to what tension really is.

Tension is like micro-conflict—it’s an underlying pressure that should build up as the plot progresses, water turning into steam in a kettle. When used correctly, tension brings your readers from the first plot point to the last, it sews everything together and keeps the pages turning.

So how is tension utilized in a story?

I’m going to use a couple of popular examples (without spoiling anything, I promise), because there’s a lot to be learned from best-sellers. So.

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)—In the beginning of the book, Katniss and Peeta have to pretend to be friends, an idea that doesn’t sit well with Katniss as they will have to kill each other once the games begin. This is pretty brilliant on Suzanne Collins’ part, because it makes every action (even something as simple as eating breakfast next to each other) rife with tension.

Harry Potter and theSorcerer’s Stone (J.K. Rowling) Again, taking from the beginning of the book, when we meet Harry he’s living in a cupboard under the stairs with his hateful Aunt and Uncle who would rather pretend he (and his magic) doesn’t exist. Instant tension.

Shatter Me (Tahereh Mafi)Without giving anything away, an imprisoned girl who can’t touch anyone without killing them wakes up in her cell to find a boy is now there. And a rather obnoxious one at that, who seems to have no problem getting terrifyingly close to her. Tension.

Tension is a valuable tool that you can (and should) use at every stage of your story—you don’t need to wait until a huge plot point to utilize it, in fact tension at the beginning of your novel is a great way to hook readers from the start. All of the examples I gave you come right from the beginning of their respective novels.

Don’t ride over any opportunity to use tension—it’s a valuable asset in your toolbox that can really hook your readers in right from the start.

Are you using tension in your novels? What other examples of great use of tension do you have?

12 comments:

Susan Sipal said...

Great examples, Ava. And I loved the Google definitions. Who would have thought of checking there for writing tips. :-)

I hope you had a great holiday!

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Susan! Google can have some surprisingly useful information, and the built-in dictionary has become an automatic go-to place for me.

Also, I had a wonderful Christmas. :) Hope your holiday weekend was just as fantastic!

Kathy L. Hall said...

This is so great! Wonderful post - and I was stunned because I just wrote one called "Confusion versus Suspense" - similar subject. Love your posts.

Ava Jae said...

Thanks so much! It's funny how those kind of topics can all come up at the same time. I've had it happen on more than one occasion where the topic I wrote about was written on multiple other blogs on the same day. :)

Donald Cribbs said...

Great post, Ava, and I like the examples. I'm reading Shatter Me next. It was a Christmas present! :D

Donald Cribbs said...

Guess I'd better figure out how to write with electromotive force... ;P

Ava Jae said...

I saw that on Goodreads! (That you were reading Shatter Me, I mean). Enjoy it--I know I most certainly did! 

Ava Jae said...

lol I didn't say ALL of the definitions are relevant...although that sounds like a powerful way to write. :D

Daniel Swensen said...

I read a great formula somewhere and swearby it: "give a character something they want badly, then move them further and further away from it."

Ava Jae said...

That's a really good way of looking at it. I read something yesterday that said basically the same thing and I've read things like that before. The best thing you can do is make it as difficult as possible for your characters--then make it worse. 

Adventures in YA Publishing said...

Great points. I love reading Don Maass about microtension as well, how adding even small elements to a scene can bridge moments where tension might otherwise be low. As far as examples go, despite the bad rap she has with writers, Stephanie Meyer's success is based on her use of both overall tension and microtension. She has readers turning pages as if by magic.

Martina

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Martina! I agree that despite the bad rap, there's a reason Meyer's books sold as well as they did--people enjoyed reading them in one form or another. Tension certainly helped facilitate that. 

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